Panic makes a man do things he would never do otherwise. Never let panic control you, Jin.“
It was a piece of wisdom Jin’s father had shared with him the day Hikari had fallen and hit her head on a stone. Jin had panicked as blood flowed down her face from a cut on her forehead. Thankfully, others in the village nearby had rushed to help and had brought her back to their parents.
However, Jin had felt awful. His father had noticed his demeanor and pulled him aside. He’d bawled his eyes out, unable to stop blabbering about how horrible he felt. Horrified that even though he wanted to help Hikari, he’d just stood there. He’d fully expected his father to be angry with him, but instead, he’d been surprised by his father’s warm embrace.
For some reason, what his father had said to him that day kept coming up in his mind. He couldn’t understand why. Jin didn’t feel like he was panicking, but what else was there that he could do that he hadn’t already done?
Something clattered against the ground next to Jin, and he turned to see Imaeda sitting down. His hammer lay abandoned at his feet. Jin stayed silent as Imaeda cradled his head between his hands. He turned away from the tall man, unwilling to give up as well.
However, with every passing second, the thought became more and more enticing. The boat, sitting on four wooden posts on the ground, wasn’t big enough. It could hold three, maybe four people with no provisions and without sinking. When Imaeda started building it a mere month ago, he had only intended to use it to go out into the sea far enough to fish. Since all of the village’s boats had been destroyed in the attack.
Despite knowing that, Imaeda had spent the last two days, not even stopping to sleep, slaving over the craft. It was as if he’d convinced himself he would be able to finish it in time. When Jin woke up from a night of fitful sleep, he had found Imaeda still working and offered to help. The two of them had worked for hours in complete silence.
What was there to say?
Grabbing another board from the pile, Jin laid it against the ship’s hull and grabbed a nail out of his pocket. He stopped, the hammer hoisted in the air above his head, poised to strike. Ever since the attack, Jin hadn’t ever imagined that things could get worse. Yet, he had never felt more hopeless than he did right now.
Jin stood sharply, letting the board fall to the ground. He began pacing back and forth, trying to think, to find something, anything that would help them. I can’t just give up! Jin screamed at himself, I promised I would look after Hikari. There has to be something…
A deep breath later, Jin slowly began calming himself down. Getting worked up was just another form of panic. He needed to think. The boat was a waste of time, and even if they did complete it, it would just delay the death of whoever got on it. It would never be able to survive the ocean currents long enough to reach another island. No, it was better to leave it unfinished.
Grabbing his shirt, Jin tried to cool himself off, the fabric caked to his skin by his own sweat. His eyes roamed across the charred remains of the village around him, trying desperately to spark some idea in his mind. There was nothing. His gaze was met by the bleak remains of crushed and destroyed homes. There was nothing to work with. They had nothing.
Their meager supplies had been packed into bags, ready to be carried across the island. There was a cave, tucked away in the woods, where the survivors hide.
The Elder had decided they would set out for the cave first thing tomorrow, but Jin knew it would be pointless. If what Wataru had told him was true, and the Loyalists were coming to set up a base on Shikoku Island, then they would be found eventually.
Even if the Shinobi don’t find us, we’ll starve sooner than later, Jin thought. He couldn’t handle seeing his sister waste away in front of his eyes. Yabuchi-san was right… we’re all going to die.
The thought was horrifying but somehow… calming. Jin couldn’t explain it.
Glancing over at Imaeda, Jin saw the brown-haired man hadn’t moved, and Jin didn’t see any need to disturb him. Setting his hammer on the edge of the boat, Jin walked away, heading toward the shack near the center of the village remains.
As he walked, Jin could feel despair emanating from the adults. Of course, everyone that knew was trying to hide it from the children, not wanting to worry them, but Jin knew the children were smart enough to figure out something was wrong.
The shack came into view as Jin rounded a corner, and he slowed to a halt, staring at the barn-like sliding door. Hikari was inside, most likely playing with her friends. He hadn’t talked to her at all today, and Jin had no idea what he would even say.
What do I do? Jin thought, racking his brain for something, anything, I promised mother… I promised her!
Jin gulped and kept walking, his eyes locked on the shack door. He would tell her the truth about the Loyalists coming, and they would go down to the graveyard, so she could at least see their parents before… before…
He paused just outside the shack, his hand raised. The seconds dragged by, but nothing happened. No flash of inspiration struck. Jin shook his head and pushed the door to the side, illuminating the dark room within.
Several children turned and waved at him in greeting, and he did his best to smile in return. He stepped inside the shed quickly and closed the door behind him. The Elder looked at him hopefully, and he shook his head.
The Elder had purposed that perhaps Wataru had been wrong, and one person could take the boat out to sea and find help on another island. No one had voiced a disagreement, but Jin knew everyone else had been thinking the same thing as him. It was false hope.
Jin saw no reason to distrust Wataru’s words. The man had saved his life, and lying to a young boy wouldn’t have gotten the Shinobi anything. No, Wataru had been telling the truth, which meant they had a day left before the Loyalists arrived.
Looking around the room, Jin saw Hikari sitting on a blanket in their corner, playing with her doll. Ueno wasn’t there this time, though she was most likely playing with some of the other children outside.
Hikari noticed him as he walked toward her, trying to avoid stepping on any of the children’s sleeping mats as he did so. She smiled as he neared their shared mat and scooted to the side, patting the ground beside her. Jin smiled in return, doing his best to hide his fear and uncertainties, and sat down.
Sighing heavily, he leaned back against the shack wall, his eyes wandering around the room and eventually settling on Wakisaka, and his sister Wakamura, playing with sticks. The two siblings were using them like small swords, and faint clacks echoed around the room as their toy weapons collided against each other.
“Gah,” Jin covered his eyes, trying to block out the image he had seen for a split second. The shack in flames, the bodies of the children strewn about the room, broken and bloody. The siblings… dead on the floor and drowning in pools of their own blood. Jin tried to fight down the panic.
Remember what father said, Jin thought, don’t panic… I can’t panic. I have to protect Hikari.
“Are you okay, Nii-san?”
Jin nodded, taking a deep breath before opening his eyes and looking over at his sister. Hikari’s eyes were full of concern, her hand on his leg. He could see she was worried for him. It was evident by the doll lying forgotten in her lap.
“I’m fine… I’m fine, Hikari,” Jin said. “Really, I am.”
Jin glanced at the siblings, afraid that his imagination had really been the reality. Thankfully, the siblings were fine, still quietly playing with their sticks. As Jin turned back to his sister, he was surprised by her wrapping her arms around him and hugging him tightly.
He did his best to return the sudden hug, though it was awkward from his position against the wall. Jin winced, his back grinding against the rough wall, but Hikari refused to let go. He didn’t dare to let go either.
There was something so… pure in his sister’s hug. It was innocent and genuine. She cared about him, and even though she had no idea what was coming, she trusted him to take care of her. She knew he was scared, and she was trying to support him in the only way she knew how.
Jin felt it coming, but there was nothing he could do to stop the tears pouring out of his eyes, to hold back the sobs wracking his chest.
“It’s going to be okay, Nii-san,” Hikari whispered, and Jin sobbed into her tangled hair. She didn’t know. He couldn’t avoid it any longer. Tomorrow, he would show her their parents grave.
“I’m sorry, Hikari, I’m so sorry.” Jin choked out.
Hikari said nothing, only continuing to hold the embrace as Jin struggled to get control of himself. Eventually, Jin released his grip, and Hikari straightened, a smile on her face.
Jin immediately noticed the tears on his sister’s cheek and was nearly overwhelmed again by a surge of emotions. However, he managed to keep himself in check.
Taking a deep breath, Jin started to open his mouth to apologize for his outburst. He paused, his head snapping toward the shack doors. He’d heard someone shout something outside, and while he hadn’t caught the words, the tone hadn’t been good.
“Shinobi! The Shinobi are here!” Kuramoto shouted from outside the shack.
Jin leaped to his feet instantly, hauling Hikari to her own after him.
The Loyalists were early, but it didn’t matter now. All that mattered was getting his sister away from them. He ignored his sister’s confusion as he hoisted her off her feet and into his arms. Hikari barely managed to keep her grip on her doll as Jin dashed across the shack, leaping over some of the children entirely.
Jin reached the shack door just as Kuramoto threw it open, narrowly avoiding crashing into the burly man as he dashed outside. He heard the Elder shout for him to wait, but Jin had no interest in slowing down.
“What’s happening?” Hikari cried, but Jin didn’t answer. His arms strained as he struggled to keep hold of his sister. He ran as fast as he could through the streets of their destroyed village.
The large piles of debris and charred wooden beams littering the streets forced him to slow down. Exhaustion threatened to trip him up at every turn, and it was only the fear he felt that kept him moving.
Jin refused, however, to stop, and continued on, drawing on energy he didn’t know he had. He reached the edge of the forest a few minutes later and was startled as Imaeda sprinted past him, carrying both Wakisaka and Wakamura in his arms.
With heavy breathes, Jin set Hikari down and directed her to get on his back. She did so without complaint or question, and Jin stood on unsteady legs. The delay had allowed the rest of the adults to catch up, each carrying one or more children.
“Hurry, Jin!” The Elder called as she darted by, a young boy, Muramoto, in her arms.
With Hikari secured on his back, Jin sprinted into the misty woods after the adults. Kuramoto’s massive form was barely visible ahead of him in the mist. He was too far behind. He had to catch up. If the Loyalists were after them, they would catch him and Hikari first.
Jin tried to force himself to run faster, but sheer exhaustion wouldn’t allow it.
Where are we even going? Jin wondered hopelessly as he struggled to remain standing after leaping over a log. With both of his arms holding Hikari on his back, it was hard to not trip and fall on the uneven forest floor. This is too soon… Wataru said we had three days!
“My doll!” Hikari cried, and Jin slowed long enough to glance over his shoulder to see his sister pointing at something on the ground behind them. Despite his instincts screaming at him to keep running, Jin turned around.
It wasn’t far. Jin could see the doll’s foot through the leaves of the plants covering the ground.
Every step back toward the village felt like walking to his own death, but he made it and quickly fished out the doll. Hikari tore the doll from his fingers and clutched it tightly to her chest. Jin didn’t pay attention, his eyes locked on the tops of the bamboo plants high above.
Throwing himself to the ground, Jin covered Hikari’s mouth, his gaze still locked on the sky above. The mist was too thick to make out anything distinct, but he watched, horrified. Shadow after shadow flitted through the bamboo high above.
Jin didn’t have to guess what the shadows were.
The Shinobi had noticed that there were survivors on the island and were hunting them down. Jin cringed as his sister tried to speak through his hand, and he turned to her, placing a finger against his lips. Hikari nodded, her eyes wide, still tightly gripping her doll.
Jin stared at the mist above, which had become eerily still. Did they notice us? Jin thought, horrified. For a moment, everything was completely silent, and Jin felt his blood run cold.
He felt his sister jump in his arms as dozens of shadows shot past overhead, all heading toward the rest of the survivors.
Jin didn’t breathe for what felt like several minutes after the last shadow disappeared into the mist. How did they not notice us? Jin thought as he got to his feet.
Hikari also stood up, and he helped her onto his back before standing up straight himself, and then he stopped.
What now? There is nowhere to go! Jin winced as his imagination began supplementing horrifying images. He shoved them aside. He didn’t have time for that right now.
Think Jin, think! Jin shouted at himself. He kept his eyes moving, trying to detect any stray shadows before they noticed him. Jin didn’t know how the Loyalists hadn’t seen him and his sister on the ground, but it didn’t matter now.
“Jin?” Hikari whispered fearfully. Her grip on Jin’s shoulders tightened as he began sprinting through the woods.
I’m such an idiot! Jin weaved through the misty bamboo as quietly as he could, but he couldn’t slow down. There was no way to be sure his idea would work, and he wished he’d thought of it sooner, but it was too late now. It took him several minutes to get out of the bamboo and into the willow trees, but with the sunlight, it was much easier to navigate now.
He had to hope that the Shinobi had not already spread out across the island. It was unlikely, but if they had, then his sister was dead no matter what he did.
“Where are we going, Jin?” Hikari whispered, but Jin didn’t answer. He didn’t want to give her hope when there very well could be nothing there.
His destination was the south beach, where he hoped to find a boat abandoned by its dead Loyalist owners. There was no way to be sure the Loyalists had come to Shikoku Island by boat, but Jin had to hope.
No, there has to be a boat, Jin assured himself while he strained his ears for any noise. The Loyalists brought a prisoner with them. They wouldn’t have carried him across the ocean.
Jin nearly collapsed from relief just from hearing the sound of waves crashing against the beach through the trees ahead of him. They’d made it this far, and as he broke free of the trees, Jin nearly cried.
A hundred paces up the beach lay a boat beached on the sand. Jin didn’t waste any time celebrating. Adjusting his sister’s place on his back, Jin sprinted down the beach, kicking up sand behind him in his hurry.
The boat was far bigger than the fishing boat Imaeda had been building. This ship was meant for longer trips, and from looking at it, Jin knew it could weather a storm without flipping. However, his enthusiasm faded as he got closer, seeing how badly the ship had been beached.
Of course, for a Shinobi, Jin knew that pushing the boat back into the water would be easy. But for him, with the ships hull more than halfway onto the beach… it was an impossible task.
However, Jin ignored that for the moment and helped his sister up onto the boat. Hikari was silent, just watching him over the edge of the ship as he walked to the front of the craft.
Gulping as he observed the size of the boat from up close, Jin glanced at the forest behind him, reassuring himself that there weren’t Loyalists creeping up on him.
A deep breath and Jin placed his hands on the smooth wood of the ship. It was a beautiful boat, and Jin couldn’t help but notice as he tried to collect what little strength he had left. The boat had clearly been made by Kiri boat makers. He could tell from how the hull had been smoothed to perfection, refined, precise in every curve. The mast of the boat towered overhead, its sails tied up, waiting for him to set them loose.
All he had to do was get it into the ocean. Noticing Hikari staring at him, Jin looked away, locking his eyes on his hands.
I can do this.
Jin shoved, and the boat didn’t budge in the slightest. Jin snarled. A growl of anger and rage at his own weakness. He would move this boat. Anger thrummed through Jin’s veins as he threw himself against the hull of the ship.
I refuse to let this be the place where Hikari dies! Jin roared as he dug his feet into the sand.
Jin felt something snap, and his exhaustion vanished. The boat budged, and Jin nearly fell over from surprise. Not wasting time to be shocked, Jin steadied himself and took a few steps back before rushing the boat, crashing into it with his shoulder.
With every attempt, the boat moved across the sand, inch by painful inch, but Jin wasn’t paying attention to the pain that flashed through his body. Nothing mattered to him but moving the boat.
Another crash caused the boat to shoot out of reach, finally reaching the ocean surface and scooting out into the sea. Jin lurched and collapsed to his knees, catching himself with his hands, his breathing heavy.
Catching his breath took him a bit, and when Jin looked up, he saw the boat had drifted quite a distance. It was too far now for him to reach. Hikari was shouting at him from the deck railing, but he couldn’t hear her.
Jin growled… and jumped.
Why he jumped, he wasn’t sure. The distance was impossibly far, there was no way he’d ever make it, but for some reason, he’d tried anyway.
Jin hit the deck of the ship hard and collapsed, his legs folding under him.
“Jin!” Hikari cried as she rushed to his side.
“I… I’m okay.” Jin stammered, trying to reassure his sister, though he sounded more in disbelief than anything else. His heart was beating wildly in his ears, and Jin didn’t even bother trying to get up, just staring at the blue sky above.
He had used Chakra. By accident of all things. The jump had been impossible, so Chakra was the only explanation. Though, now that he thought about it, moving the boat had been impossible too.
Jin was excited; he’d used Chakra. He could learn to use Jutsu! His excitement was cut short by the tied-up sails jostling against the mast above him, and Jin remembered where he was.
Pushing his excitement to the side, Jin got to his feet and rushed past his sister to the wheel. He needed to get them safe and away from the Loyalists. There would be time to celebrate later.
Thankfully, Jin found the ship wasn’t that complicated to steer, and he managed to get it turned around and heading out to sea. At his instructions, Hikari held the wheel still as he climbed up the mast and unfastened the ropes holding the sail.
While he untied knot after knot, Jin checked the beach repeatedly, knowing that they were dead if the Shinobi spotted them now. Even though they were over four hundred paces from the beach, such a distance was trivial for a Shinobi who could walk on water.
Jin grinned, however, as the sail dropped and immediately caught the wind. The craft lurched before speeding across the water, nearly causing it to fall from the mast.
Hikari did fall, however, crying out in fear as she slid across the deck. The boat calmed, and she came to a gentle stop against the railing. Jin climbed down the mast as fast as possible and rushed to Hikari’s side, helping her to her feet.
Once he’d made sure she was okay, Jin grabbed the wheel and directed them farther out to sea. The farther away they were from the island, the less dense the ever-present fog became. With his new visibility, Jin could see Shikoku Island’s north side, and what he saw horrified him.
Boats bigger than any he had ever seen in his life sat waiting in the water, just barely visible through the mist. Jin immediately yanked hard on the wheel, turning the boat in the opposite direction.
They would have to go around.